Cambridge Corn Exchange 17th November 2013
Those with a passing acquaintance of Frank Zappa's music tend to think of him as an avant garde musician, who is perhaps, too clever for his own good. But Frank Zappa is probably the finest composer of the modern age. He would have been 73 this year, but by the time he died in 1993, he had created 80 albums and a body of work such monumental proportions that it was enough for several lifetimes. He still stands alone as a one off musical genius, far beyond his time. If he had lived long enough to embrace the current digital age, one can only imagine and marvel at what else he would have done.
The music Frank composed was highly complex, constructed with the utmost precision and notoriously difficult to interpret and play. In fact the handful of musicians who are able to tackle this music are as rare as Frank Zappa himself. Fortunately, there are those who are skilled enough to be able to bring his compositions to a live arena and not leave them confined to a studio recording.
Enter Zappa Plays Zappa, the talented musicians who have been assembled to execute the mastery of Frank Zappa's music under the watchful eye of his guitarist son, Dweezil. The current concert is part of the 40th anniversary of one of Franks most popular albumsRoxy and Elsewhere, which they play in full during the first half.
The audially mesmerising set kicks off with the 16 minute Gumbo Variations. This lengthy track shows that Zappa Plays Zappa really mean business and is one helluva way to warm the audience up before launching into Roxy. This really is music like nothing else and is difficult to categorise - which is precisely what makes it so remarkable. Within the space of one track you can get jazz, rock, funk and anything else you care to mention. Even more remarkable is that the musicians were not reading the music, but playing from memory. Given its complexity, this is something approaching miraculous considering orchestras had difficulty playing the music from the notation! To learn such intricate time signatures and sophisticated melodies requires such jaw dropping musicianship you are left astounded at its technical brilliance.
I have rarely seen such quality of musicianship. Dweezil although placed centre stage, does not play the showman and seems very reverential to his fathers music. He plays with sublime accuracy and is one of the most fluid guitarists I have ever seen. Shelia Gonzalez, a Grammy award winning saxophonist and pianist is sheer gold. Her work on The Blank Page along with virtuoso drummer Ryan Brown is one of the highlights of the evening and one of Zappa's most involved and complex pieces.
Certain songs such as Penguin In Bondage require a theatrical approach to make the song come. Although a little contrived it was necessary to make the songs work. One surprise of the night comes is I Come From Nowhere from the album Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch; a track which originally used SFX to make the vocals out of tune on purpose. Shelia Gonzalez rises to the challenge of trying to replicate the track in a live setting without the assistance of technology and does a seller job.Teenage Prostitute , The Torture Never Stops, Broken Hearts are for Assholes all feature in the heavier second set. Followed by the lengthy encore of an instrumental Duke Of Prunes, Cosmik Debris and Muffin Man.
Zappa plays Zappa is a stunning presentation of Frank Zappa's music. A real treat for audiophiles and music lovers everywhere to appreciate the timeless work of a musical master.